Sylvia Plath’s Feminist Legacy Lives On...


In 1965, a few hundred well-dressed patrons filled an auditorium at the Guggenheim Museum and listened to two British critics discuss the state of modern literature. One of the speakers was A. Alvarez, who announced he was going to read a poem by an unknown American writer.

“I said the poem was by a young woman named Sylvia Plath who died a couple of years ago in London,” recalled Alvarez, a friend of Plath’s who had published some of her work in The Observer in London.

“I read ‘Daddy,’ and it was like releasing a small, tactical nuke. It’s such a dark poem and it was a very chic crowd and it had the most extraordinary impact. If you’ve ever given a lecture, you can always tell when you’ve really hit the spot. There was a moment of shocked silence. I suspect that was the first time her late poems had had much of an airing in New York, or in America.”


If the second coming of Plath didn’t begin then, it was at least typical of the belated reaction to both her work and to her life. Just who was this poet who wrote about death and despair with an almost terrifying intimacy? Why would a gifted 30-year-old woman with two young children, not long after writing some of her best poems, decide to kill herself?

Overlooked in her own time, she is famous now, as famous as a writer could be in a video age. Many who never read the “Ariel” poems or her autobiographical novel, “The Bell Jar,” at least have some knowledge of the American author who placed her head in an oven and gassed herself to death on Feb. 11, 1963.

“The fact is I still have my doubts whether she and her poetry would be recognized as being as good as they are if there wasn’t this terrible tragedy surrounding them,” Alvarez said.

“I don’t necessarily believe that literature in general or poetry in particular has a very wide audience or a very wide effect. But for Sylvia Plath, there is this ghastly sort of scenario running behind it.”

Whether it’s the books themselves or the irresistible image of a tortured artist, Plath has developed a following of non-literary proportions. “Ariel,” her first posthumous collection, was published in 1965 and has sold more than 500,000 copies, an astonishing figure for a collection of poetry.

“The Bell Jar,” rejected by American publishers when she was alive, spent 24 weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list in 1971 and has sold more than 1 million copies. In 1982, her “Collected Poems” won the Pulitzer Prize.


Rebirth was one of her major themes and 30 years after her death, at least two Sylvia Plaths seem to have emerged: the feminist martyr who died for the sins of a male-dominated world, and the writer whose mastery of language helped her turn pain and loss into some of the most compelling art of the 20th Century.

“I remember the passage in ‘The Bell Jar’ where her character says, ‘If neurotic means wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell,’ ” recalled “Backlash” author Susan Faludi, a teen-ager when Plath’s novel became popular.

“It seemed to be a boiling down of women constantly being told by society you have to choose between private happiness and public success, that to one degree or another it will make you crazy. I remember going back to that passage when I was working on ‘Backlash,’ and having it on my mind.”

“She was vital, she was absolutely vital in her use of language,” said poet and critic Grace Schulman, whose poetry collections include “Hemispheres” and “Burn Down the Icons.”

“She found a way of writing a good poem out of her personal sorrow,” Schulman said. “But for any serious reading of those poems, it is essential to keep the life out of it. As a matter of fact, you get details that couldn’t possibly be real.”

Plath was an exceptional person who came of age at a time when women, exceptional or not, were expected to stay at home. For much her of life, she was torn between working within those limitations and rebelling against them.


Born in Boston on Oct. 27, 1932, she began trying to speak when she was just 8 weeks old and was composing poems by grade school. She would remember her early years as happy ones, at least until 1940, when her father died after a long illness.

Otto Plath’s death haunted the poet for the rest of her life, but after her initial reaction--the 8-year-old Plath declared, “I will never speak to God again”--she seemed to settle into a normal childhood, joining the Girl Scouts and enjoying books and movies and listening to the radio. She also began submitting poems to newspapers.

On the surface, the tall, apple-cheeked Plath wasn’t very different from any other intelligent, ambitious girl trying to find her way in America in the 1950s. She was an excellent student who seemed as impressed as anyone by winning awards and being accepted into a prestigious school, Smith College. While dreaming of becoming a writer, she also hoped to settle down and to raise children.

“I could never be a complete scholar or a complete housewife or a complete writer,” she once wrote to her mother. “I must combine a little of all, and thereby be imperfect in all.”

She was hard on herself, too hard. In the summer of 1953, upset about not getting into a class at Harvard Summer School, she became deeply depressed and in August decided to kill herself. She sneaked into her basement at home and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills, passing out in a dark crawl space.

Two days later, covered with her own dried vomit, she was found by her grandmother and was hospitalized until January. The experience later became the basis for “The Bell Jar.”


” . . . As I approached the bottom of the bottle, red and blue lights began to flash before my eyes,” Plath wrote in her novel of her character’s suicide attempt.

“The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.”

Describing her recovery as a time of “slow rebirth and psychic regeneration,” Plath returned to Smith and graduated summa cum laude in 1955. She then received a Fulbright Scholarship to study literature at Cambridge University, where she met Ted Hughes, a handsome, brooding British poet whose works had impressed Plath when she read them in a magazine.

“He is the dearest, most kindest, most honest man that ever lived. . . . He is better than any teacher, even fills somehow that huge, sad hole I felt in having no father,”’ Plath wrote to her mother. She neglected, however, to mention their bizarre, passionate first meeting: They were at a party and drifted into an empty room. Hughes then kissed her on the neck and Plath bit him on the cheek.

Within months they were married, living in Massachusetts while Plath taught at Smith and later in a thatched-roof country house in England. Likening their world to a Garden of Eden, she wrote gushing letters home of their life together: the long walks and endless discussions, the support they offered for each other’s work. Only occasionally would Plath refer to their intense, sometimes violent arguments.

Hughes, currently England’s poet laureate, was by far the more successful of the two. Plath’s poems and stories appeared in the New Yorker, the Nation and other magazines, but Hughes was the one receiving raves for his books, the one photographed with T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden.


Plath published a volume of poetry, “The Colossus,” in 1960, but it made little impact, especially compared to Hughes’ “The Hawk in the Rain” and “Lupercal.” Still, she continued writing poems, completed one novel (“The Bell Jar”) and was working on a sequel when her world abruptly fell apart.

In July, 1962, the telephone rang at Plath’s house and she answered. It was Assia Wevill, a German refugee with whom Plath and Hughes had socialized in the spring. Attempting to disguise her identity, Wevill lowered her voice to make it sound like a man’s, but Plath wasn’t fooled: She realized her husband was having an affair.

Within days, the couple separated and later filed for divorce. (They were still legally married when she died). At the end of the year, Plath and her two children moved to London, to an upstairs flat in a house where William Butler Yeats once lived.

Her moods varied widely, from ecstasy over her independence and her new poems to despair over her broken home and the brutal London winter, one of the worst in the city’s history. By February, however, she was sinking quickly, openly describing herself as a “very sick woman,” alternating between sleeping pills and anti-depressants.

The end came on the morning of Feb. 11. She turned up the gas in her oven, placed her head inside and rested it on a folded cloth. Her children remained asleep upstairs; Plath had sealed the door to their bedroom to make sure they weren’t harmed.

Her death was such minor news the press initially reported she had succumbed to viral pneumonia. “The Colossus” had been her only published collection of poems. “The Bell Jar” came out in England under a pseudonym in January 1963 and didn’t reach the United States until eight years later.


Even if part of her decided life was too much to handle, as an artist Plath was only beginning to find herself. She always had had the poet’s gift for imagery, but over her last few months, she developed a focused, ruthless command of her emotions. If a writer is supposed to write “what she knows,” then Plath’s knowledge apparently had no limits.

In “Edge,” written six days before her death, she describes the corpse of the “perfected” woman, her body wearing “the smile of accomplishment.” “Daddy,” with its sinister nursery rhymes, reinvents her father as a Nazi and refers to Hughes as a “vampire” who “drank my blood” for seven years. The conclusion to “Words”--”From the bottom of the pool/fixed stars/Govern a Life”--seem as unforgiving as a letters etched on a tombstone.

But at the same time, she was nearly consumed by feelings of power. “Does my heat not astound you,” she wrote in “Fever 103.” In “Lady Lazarus,” Plath is born again and again, a cat with nine lives, imagining “Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air.”

The greatness--and the difficulty--of these poems is Plath’s refusal to compromise. Happiness comes at a terrible price. She is warning us that opposites need to be reconciled, that avoiding them is just a slower kind of suicide.

At her best, Plath forces her readers to see the world as she sees it, joins their fates to hers. Once these poems are started, there is no turning back.

‘The blood jet is poetry, there is no stopping it’

Here are excerpts from the poems of Sylvia Plath, who died at age 30 on Feb. 11, 1963:

Little or nothing.

So many of us!

So many of us!

We are shelves, we are

Tables, we are meek,

We are edible

Nudgers and shovers

In spite of ourselves.

Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning

Inherit the earth.

Our foot’s in the door.

--from “Mushrooms.” --

Herr God, Herr Lucifer



Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

--from “Lazarus.”


Its crystals a little poultrice.

O kindness, kindness

Sweetly picking up pieces!

My Japanese silks, desperate butterflies,

May be pinned any minute, anesthetized.

And here you come, with a cup of tea

Wreathed in steam.

The blood jet is poetry,

There is no stopping it.

You hand me two children, two roses.

--from “Kindness.”

You do not do, you do not do

Any more, black shoe

In which I lived like a foot

For thirty years, poor and white,

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.

You died before I had time--

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,

Ghastly statue with one gray toe

Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic

Where it pours bean green and blue

In the waters off beautiful Nauset.

I used to pray to recover you.

Ach du.

--from “Daddy.”